The planet was desolate gray and so cold those who lived there shivered as they slept. There were those whose duty it was to be awake at night with their ears to the sky, like Laran. He wore the black, hooded robe of the faithful worshipper as he cooked some small creature for a meal. He chopped it in half and ate hungrily. A whistling on the wind caught his attention and he looked up at the sky. Kara, also dressed in a black hooded robe, stood nearby staring at the swollen, yellow green sun on the horizon. When the sound filled the air she turned around. She was a lovely woman, with wavy dark hair and wide, dark depthless eyes. She looked up at the thousands of stars in the sky. She saw nothing, pursed her lips in disappointment and started past Laran.
"There! There it is!" Laran called. He pointed into the dark sky. One of the stars was moving, leaving no trail behind it. "The Federation ship bringing in prisoners." He grinned greedily.
Kara turned a cold look on him. Her voice, in contrast to her icy gaze, was rich and sultry. "Prisoners? New souls for the Faith."
The London began its decent towards Cygnus Alpha. On the flight-deck, Leylan's face wore a troubled frown as he wrote his log report. Artix came on deck carrying a rifle and two drinks. He set one drink in front of Leylan and put his rifle away.
"How long before we make planet-fall, Mr. Artix?" Leylan rubbed his brow wearily as he asked.
The young man turned towards his station. "I'll run a check."
"Are the prisoners quiet?"
Artix sat in Raiker's old seat and glanced back at Leylan. "Yes, sir. Forty-eight minutes thirty seconds," he said as he reached for his own drink. "We're dosing their air supply with suppressant vapor and they're under constant scan." He peered over the seat at Leylan who looked emotionlessly back at him. "Security have put on double guards and I have armed all the crew as well, just as you've instructed."
Leylan picked up his drink. "All a bit late in the day, too."
Artix poked his head over the seat again to eye his captain. In the last several months Leylan had changed. It was almost as if he had put up a wall between them and was watching Artix suspiciously from beyond it. Troubled, the young man turned and activated the external cameras. The desolate planet appeared on-screen. "Doesn't look very hospitable, sir."
It took a moment for Leylan to register the remark. "What?"
Firmly, Artix repeated, "Cygnus Alpha. It doesn't look very hospitable, sir."
Leylan ignored Artix's comment. He gathered up the report log and handed it to the young man. "I want you to send this report. Beam it to the nearest Federation base, for relay to Earth."
Artix took the log and stared at it wistfully. He stood up, reluctance in every move. "It's not gonna do very much for my promotion prospects, sir."
The commander sipped his drink. "You can live down your part of it. You're young." Artix gave him a pleading look but Leylan waved his hand. "Do it Mr. Artix."
In due time Leylan's recorded voice echoed on the flight deck. "This is Civil-Administration ship London, in transit from Earth to Cygnus Alpha, transporting prisoners to the penal colony." He listened to his own report and felt like he was shoveling dirt into his own grave. "We have sustained crew casualties during an attempted mutiny by prisoners. Five dead, including sub-commander Raiker. Three prisoners escaped in a spacecraft of unknown origin. Prisoners Blake, Stannis, and Avon. The London is again under authorized control and proceeding to destination. Message ends. Re-transmit to Earth, on priority circuit." Leylan drank wearily. "Confirm please." A coded beeping sounded over the comm channel.
Artix looked over at his captain. "We have confirmation. Will they go after Blake?"
"They have no choice."
Peering out a portal at the stars the young man said, "They'll never find him out there!"
Leylan gave Artix a long, hard look. "They won't have to. He'll find them."
The alien ship had followed behind the London for four months. Blake was at the main pilot's chair, fiddling with the controls. Jenna stood at another console, looking it over. He came down to where she was. "Everything okay?"
Her attention absorbed in the console, she responded without looking at him. "I think so."
Blake fidgeted, tried again to get her full attention. He was rather bored. "Whoever they were, they certainly knew something about engineering."
She glanced at that and met his eyes. "I'd feel a lot happier if we knew what'd happened to them."
At that comment Blake ducked his head and made a sound of agreement. When Jenna turned her attention back to the console he gave up on talking to her and wandered over to where Avon was standing staring at a triangular grey forcefield wall about eighteen feet around beginning four feet from the deck.
Almost as though he could sense the rebel coming, Avon spoke without turning. "Blake, what do you make of this?"
"Some sort of storage place?"
As if triggered by their interest, the wall shut down revealing an alcove full of rectangular receptacles, seven of which were lighted. Black rods with thick coils curling back into the receptacles protruded from them.
"Look!" Blake exclaimed as he immediately reached for one.
"Careful!" Avon warned him sharply.
When Blake pulled out a rod the light in its case faded. The rod was actually a handle. In the middle was a thick ring of metal and from there to its end the rod was made of a transparent white substance. The two men stared, nonplused. "Handgun?" Blake ventured a guess.
Avon gave him an you're-so-observant glare. "It's a bit elaborate for a toothpick."
"Depends how elaborate their teeth were," Blake answered with a grin. He reached for another rod but jerked back when his fingers touched it. "Owe! That one's hot!"
Avon stretched his fingers out tentatively to brush the handle, then pulled it out. "No it isn't." He reached for another but when his fingers touched it he too jerked back. "That one is though!" he said with a wicked smile. "Jenna!"
"What is it?" she asked, coming over from the consoles.
Blake answered, "Seems to be an armory." He frowned as he gazed at it.
"Take that one there," Avon told Jenna, pointing to the one which had stung him.
"Careful, though. It may be hot," Blake warned.
"No I don't think so," said Avon firmly.
Jenna looked from one to the other, then nervously took hold of the handle and brought the gun out. "No, 'tisn't." she told them.
"Single-function isomorphic response." Having solved this mystery, Avon lost interest and walked away.
"What?" Jenna asked Blake.
"I think he means it'll only let us have one gun each."
Avon spoke again from across the deck, his voice flatter than he usually held it. "Well, it certainly gives one a feeling of independence."
"What does?" Blake asked as he and Jenna put their guns back.
They turned to find the tech holding his weapon on Blake, his eyes flat black.
Blake went utterly still for an instant then frowned at Avon. "You're a free man," he said icily.
A shudder ran across the tech's shoulders. He said rapidly, "That's right. So I am."
Casually, said a small voice in Blake's head. Treat it casually or he'll be pushed into actually trying it. Don't wonder at the why just now. The rebel shrugged and walked to the flight-stations. Jenna followed his lead, she came around the other way, in front of Avon who had to hold up his gun so she could pass.
Pretending to ignore the tech Blake asked, "How does she handle, Jenna?"
"It's a bit scary... it's almost as if she were alive."
Disgruntled at being ignored Avon lowered the gun, swinging it nonchalantly. "Well! I must say, all this technology has an organic feel about it." He came around the flight-couch and started past Blake, unconsciously shying from him. "It's not just advanced, it's....."
"Conceptually alien?" the rebel finished for him.
"Yes." This time he consciously side-stepped away from Blake.
Jenna looked at the two men thoughtfully. "There're a lot of controls that I haven't dared touch yet."
Blake turned, eyebrows up. "Well I doubt whether we'd understand the manual, so uh... go ahead and try one. Go on!" he urged when she gave him a doubtful look.
"Well don't blame me if it's self-destruct."
"Doubt if I'll ever speak to you again," he answered and met her eyes with an infectious grin.
Jenna studied the panel for a moment longer. "Okay, here we go." She activated a control. For a moment they heard the engines hum loudly and then they were thrown back as the ship leaped forward. Pressure pinned Blake and Avon to the deck. Jenna, pressed into her seat, reached with great difficulty to the cancel button and in a moment the ship slowed to a standard speed. Avon and Blake staggered breathless and panting to their feet beside her station.
"That was quite a trip!" exclaimed the rebel when he got his breath back.
"Oh there's certainly a lot of power in it!" she replied. Blake rubbed at his nose thoughtfully and Avon peered at the controls. Jenna nudged Blake. "Did you get a blackout effect?"
"So did I."
Avon glanced up at them. "Negative hyperspace."
The rebel's eyes brightened with curiosity. "We've crossed the antimatter interface?"
"Impossible," declared Jenna. Blake raised his brows and shrugged.
"That's what they said about the light barrier," Avon commented.
Jenna grimaced. "Well which one next?" she asked.
Avon considered the question then indicated a control. "Try... that one." He lunged for the flight deck couch and got a death-grip on it. Blake braced himself at Jenna's chair. When she touched the control, nothing happened. For a moment they remained in these positions, then all three chuckled. Avon let go of the couch and came back to them. "Something of an anti-climax!"
"Blake, I can't move my hand!" Jenna said sharply. She pulled back and was becoming alarmed.
Avon intercepted Blake's hand as he reached for Jenna. "Don't touch her!"
The smuggler's hand hovered just above the square green control and she spoke. "It's as though my hand were... part of something...." She stared into the distance, a faint smile on her lips. "Mixed with something else, it's... it's... in my head. Something in my mind asking... answering..." suddenly she panicked and struggled, "NO!" Blake almost reached for her again but Avon's fierce glare deterred him. Then relief and joy slid across Jenna's face. "Oh it's so peaceful. So beautiful! It's completely... it's like... innocence...."
The flight deck speakers boomed, Welcome, Jenna Stannis! spoke a deep male voice. Avon grabbed his gun and searched for a target.
Jenna's hand was released. "Who is this?" she asked, rubbing her hand nervously.
Zen. Welcome, Roj Blake!
The startled rebel spun. "Where are you?! Show yourself!"
Your species requires a visual reference point.
Jenna pointed at the far wall. "Blake!"
This is your reference point! In the recessed portion of the wall was a spherical screen that flashed with lights when the voice sounded. *Note: Ship design is based on hexagonal pattern, all doorways, halls and probably large rooms such as flight deck are six-sided.*
Avon lowered the gun. "You're a computer!"
As you say, Kerr Avon.
Blake crossed the deck to stand before the curved fascia. "Who owns this ship? Where are they?!"
The computer ignored his question. The navigation units will accept your spoken commands. Please state speed and course.
Startled, he chewed his finger nervously then drew a breath. "I want a course for the Earth Federation penal planet Cygnus Alpha."
Galactic center co-ordinates are confirmed.
Blake looked at the co-ordinates on a console and raised his brows in surprise. He turned to Jenna, "Speed?"
She shrugged. "Standard?"
"Standard speed!" he called to Zen.
Jenna checked the readings and grinned. "That's done it! Seems we're on course now!"
The computer tech's eyes were narrowed. "It didn't answer any of your questions. More than that, it deliberately ignored them. A computer can't have a will of its own."
"You'd better tell Zen that," Jenna smirked.
Blake spun around. "Let's look around the rest of the ship and find out exactly what it is we've stolen."
"Salvaged," Jenna corrected him.
"Why don't we just interrogate Zen!" Avon snapped.
"Even if he'd answer-" Blake began.
The fuming computer tech snarled, "I'll make it answer!"
Blake held out a calming hand. "I'd still prefer to find out for myself!" He glanced at Zen. "I'm not sure I entirely trust a computer with a mind of its own."
Jenna looked over at him. "I don't think it means us any harm."
"It has no feelings about us at all, it's just a machine," Avon told her.
"If YOU say so," she teased him.
Blake rolled his eyes. "Yes, either way it'll keep. C'mon!"
Avon followed the others off the deck, reluctantly leaving behind the gun. It had been four months already, he reminded himself firmly. He was unlikely to need it now.
The London touched down on Cygnus Alpha. Kara and Laran had an excellent view from the top of a nearby hill. With a dignified toss of her head the woman told her companion, "Go to Him and tell Him new bounty has come from the Darkness!" She crossed her wrists on her chest and turned away. "I will go to the place of Rebirth."
On the London's flight deck Artix and Leylan were hard at work. Short a man ever since Raiker's untimely (though well-deserved in Leylan's opinion) death, they managed to handle the old ship well. "Berthing sequence, automatic committed," Leylan read out.
Artix started the countdown. "Seventeen... sixteen... fifteen...."
"Landing beam alignment confirmed."
"Fourteen... thirteen... twelve...."
"Check main retrodrive."
Artix hit a few switches, continuing his countdown. "Eleven... ten...."
"Temperate silo." The ship put down in a cloud of dust raised by its passage and shuddered as it settled. "We have ground. Zero contact, all off."
Artix shut down a sequence of switches. "All off sir."
"All right, disembark the prisoners, Mr. Artix. Maintain full security until they're in the holding bay. I'll program the computer for the return." He moved to the computer console. "We lift off in T + 30."
"Thirty minutes?!" The younger man protested. "Sir, we've been in space now for eight months. I wouldn't mind stretching my legs a little."
The commander simply gazed at him. "Not on this planet, Mr. Artix. Now get the prisoners off, and let's get out of here."
Leylan watched the disappointed young man leave. Then he turned back to reflect on the report he'd sent of an incident nearly four months old.
"We have sustained crew casualties during an attempted mutiny by prisoners. Five dead, including sub-commander Raiker. Three prisoners escaped in a spacecraft of unknown origin. Prisoners Blake, Stannis, and Avon."
What are they doing now? he wondered.
They investigated circuitry and experimented with instruments, never straying far from each other. They were in a smaller sized room off the flight deck containing a table that had dozens of curious switches and pads on it, and a couch to sit on which curved around between the table and a wall. Across from the table was a chamber large enough for several people to stand in which Blake was investigating. Jenna was poking around in a container holding several black and gold bracelets. Avon had settled himself at the table.
Blake called to him. "Avon." The technician joined him in the chamber. He stared around at the walls which were made of different material than the rest of the ship's walls. Blake nudged him. "What do you think?"
Turning away towards the console Avon began, "Before I decided to put my talents to more profitable use...."
"And got arrested..." muttered Jenna.
He gave her a flat annoyed look and continued. "I handled the computer analysis for a research project into matter transmission. It was based on a new alloy-"
"Acquitar!" said Blake from behind him.
Avon looked at the rebel for a long moment, a sure sign he had been startled. "That's right."
"Yes I worked on that project too." Blake gazed thoughtfully at the wall.
"Small world," the tech finally said.
Blake chuckled and shrugged. "Large project."
"I didn't work on it," Jenna said, to remind them that someone still needed an explanation.
Avon turned to her, his voice taking on a lecturing tone as he picked up a bracelet. "The molecular structure of Acquitar..." he moved into the chamber as he spoke, Blake on his heels carrying another bracelet, "appears to contain the key to the reduction and the transmission of matter as pure energy."
Jenna turned to Blake. "Instant transportation?"
"Sends solid objects like radio signals," he replied with a glance at Avon to see if the tech did not like that definition. "Trouble was it seldom worked."
Avon took up the explanation again, irritated at being interrupted. "And on living matter, it never worked. Put a living creature in one end, take a dead creature out of the other. Or nothing at all."
Jenna glanced around, impressed. "So you think that's what all this is for... matter transmission?"
"Well these bracelets contain Acquitar, or something very like it," Blake replied. They turned as a strange sound came through the hallway from the flight deck.
"What's that?" Jenna asked.
Blake turned to her. "Check." She nodded and left the room. He went back to studying the bracelet.
Avon held up the bracelet he was carrying and gazed intently at Blake. "Question is: have they solved the problem of living matter?" They both stared into the container, counting the bracelets.
Blake frowned. "And if they have, could we teleport down to the surface of the planet without ever having to land the ship?"
"Too many `ifs' for my taste." Avon looked disgusted.
Blake turned his bracelet over so the red button was at the top. "Presumably these are part of the recall system. This looks like a communicator." He pressed it down and spoke into it. His voice boomed out from a speaker behind them. "Hello! Testing, one... two... three...." He turned to the tech who was rubbing thoughtfully at the bridge of his nose. "Seems to work all right."
"Tuned to transmit directly to the ship," Avon raised a cautioning hand. "Let's ask the computer how the system works."
Jenna ran back into the room. "Blake! I think you'd better come."
"We've stopped." She glanced worriedly at Avon. "Everything's gone dead."
They ran to the flight deck.
The three skidded to a stop in front of the computer. "Zen!!" Blake called out.
Please state speed and course, the computer answered.
"Cygnus Alpha, standard speed!" Blake glared up at the ball, his hands on his hips.
Completed. The rebel dropped his hands in surprise. The Liberator is in stationary orbit one-thousand spatials above the planet's surface.
After a moment's startled silence Blake said, "I see." He went over to one of the consoles to check the readings.
Avon stared at Jenna. "Liberator."
She flushed slightly. "Got that from me, it was something I was thinking."
Your thought was accepted.
"Show us the planet," Avon ordered.
You require the remote-visualization unit?
Please look at the screen.
On the wall next to Zen an oval holographic screen bloomed out and they stared at the desolate gray-blue planet in the image. "So that's where we would've spent the rest of our lives," Jenna murmured.
"What now?" Avon asked Blake, suspicion in his tone.
Blake's voice made it obvious he had been planning this all these months. "We've gotta go down and there and rescue the others."
Avon spun on him. "You're not going to try and LAND this thing?!"
"What's the alternative?" Blake asked indignantly.
"Leave! I'm free, and I intend to stay that way!!"
"And I need a crew!" Blake stalked past Avon to the computer. "Zen! How does the teleport system work?"
Avon stepped beside him and quickly specified, "Would its function be injurious to our species, have you the necessary data?" Jenna, meanwhile, went to a flight station.
Wisdom must be gathered. It cannot be given.
"Don't philosophize with me, you electronic moron! Answer the question!" Beside him, Blake's shoulders were twitching with laughter.
Zen! the computer said firmly.
"Zen!" Avon barked back at it.
Jenna grinned at him from the console. "I don't think he likes you, somehow."
He turned away from Zen, fuming. "I think I may have to reprogram this machine."
"Still won't make YOU likable."
Blake rubbed his chin, thinking aloud, "Avon's right, we can't land the ship." He chewed his finger for a moment. "I'm going to have to risk the teleport system. C'mon." He headed off the deck making a beeline for the teleport room. Avon gave Jenna an apprehensive look and they followed him.
On Cygnus, Artix hurried the prisoners off of London. Bullying them along with his voice. "C'mon move it, hurry! MOVE it!" He turned to the crewman standing behind him. "Guard, make a double-check that the rest of the prisoners are secured."
"Move it!" Artix yelled again.
They left the ship and entered a holding cell. The exits were blocked by barred doors. Vila and Arco pressed their noses between the bars and looked around. The corridors beyond were empty and sort of reddish, as though the lighting systems had been failing for a log time. "What happens now then?" Arco asked bitterly. Gan moved to stand behind them.
"This is nice, isn't it," grumbled Vila. "What a miserable hole. If we were to complain do you think they would give us a refund?"
"Shut up!!" growled the other man.
"Can't you see the funny side of it? Hey, have you heard this one? `There was a young lady from Cygnus, who thought th-'" he was cut off by Arco's hands on his collar.
"Are you gonna shut yer mouth or am I gonna do it for you?!" A large hand suddenly reached between them and gripped both of Arco's wrists.
"Only if you're lying down," Olag Gan said with a wide smile. "'Cause if you touch him again, I'm gonna break your arms and legs off!" He threw the other man away from them much to Vila's delight.
One of the older prisoners, Selman, sidled nervously over to Vila. "Why do you suppose they put us down here?" he whimpered.
"Just a holding area, they'll release us soon. Don't worry about this place." Vila's sly tone was hardly reassuring, though he meant to be. He glanced towards the closed exit. "It's what's on the other side of that that bothers me...."
Arco joined them, glaring at Vila. Selman turned to him. "W-what do you think it'll be like, Arco?"
"Well how should I know! It won't be good, will it?! They don't put penal colonies on easy-living planets."
Selman wrung his hands. "What about guards? Authority?"
"Why should they bother? It's a long walk back," Vila pointed out cheerfully.
The frightened man sidled along the bars to stand in front of Gan. His voice quaking he asked them, "Well why are they keepin' us here?"
Gan glanced around. "Relax."
Vila poked his head over slyly. "This is probably the nicest place on the planet." The rising pitch of the ship's engines startled the thief. "Listen!"
"They're getting ready to lift off..." whined Selman.
The exit door opened just then and they went out it, but there were more bars there. They peered into the corridor beyond. Gan, Arco and Vila had pushed to the front. "Can you see anything?" Arco asked Gan.
Gan stretched to the end of his rather considerable height and peered down the corridor. "Just... some sort of passage."
Vila muttered, "Cold as a corpse's armpit."
A breeze brought in a scent that made Arco wrinkle his nose. "What's that smell?!"
Another man pushed forward and sniffed. "It's like... something rotting!"
"Dinner, probably," Vila replied cheerfully. Then he cried out in pain as the ship's engines roared and they all cringed and covered their ears.
On the flight deck of London Leylan turned to Artix. "Release prisoners."
The barred door slid open and at last they were free to leave the holding cell. They stepped warily into the passage. Arco turned nervously to Gan. "What now?"
"What else is there? I mean, we don't have much choice, do we?" The big man started down the corridor and they followed him. When they got to the exit, they stood frozen. Pools of bubbling water and rocky waste were all around. Smoke or mist rose from the pools and visibility was about thirty feet. Arco stepped out a few feet and then came back, too afraid to go any further.
Vila jumped and pointed. "There's someone out there! Look!"
"Where?!" asked Arco.
"There!" Through a gap in the smoke Vila could see a figure dressed in black. As he stared, it raised an arm and waved. "Someone beckoning!" Smoke obscured the figure and when it cleared.... "You see it, Gan? It's gone!" Gan stared at the spot Vila had been indicating, his brow furrowed.
Arco shook his head. "I didn't see anybody."
"Ya' must've done!" Vila snapped.
"I tell ya I didn't! You're so scared your brain's curdling."
"Did you see it?" Vila asked Gan.
"I saw... something," he replied, nodding.
"There you are," Vila folded his arms smugly.
Gan gathered his courage. "Well we're gonna have to see what's out there sooner or later."
"Let's all go!" the thief suggested. The others stared at him in surprise and he gulped, remembering that he was supposed to be a coward. "Ah... no, on the other hand, let's all stay."
Exasperated, Gan started forward. "I'll take a look." He walked unflinching into the fog and vanished.
The others stared after him. When he did not reappear for a few minutes, Vila shouted, "Gan! Y'all right? Gan!"
Arco started forward. "He might be in trouble. C'mon."
"Shouldn't we wait a bit longer? I mean he might be all right. And if he isn't what chance do the rest of us stand?"
"C'mon." Arco glowered at Vila as they filed past him.
"Uh..! Look, uh... look!" he called as they trudged off, leaving him behind. "Wouldn't it be better if we all stay together?! ARCO! Great oaf... why couldn't he have stayed here?" He pursed his lips in frustration as they began to disappear from his sight, then he ran after them. "ARCO!! ARCO! ARCO!!" He caught up to them and shoved his way to the front.
Soon they saw Gan ahead of them through the fog. He was kneeling, intent upon something he had found on the ground. Beyond him was a marker of some sort; two wooden beams crossed, with a mass of rags hanging from them.
"Oh," said Vila softly. The rags had a vaguely human shape.
"Gan?" Arco called anxiously. "Gan, what is it?" Gan glanced around at them, then he stood up and brought the wooden board he had been looking at to them. "What is it?" Arco asked again, frightened. Gan dropped it on the ground grimly. They looked down at it and Arco read the words written upon it, confused. "`So perish unbelievers?'" Gan shrugged and walked over to the rags. He shifted the ones on top, grimacing in anticipation of what he knew he would find. The rags came off to reveal a damp skull, still with bits of flesh hanging from it.
Both of them glanced up. The dark haired tech was frowning. "Educated guesses, I can't be certain."
Blake smiled as he put the bracelet on. "Now is the time to see how `educated' your guesses are."
"I still think this is a stupid risk," Avon informed him for the hundredth time.
"Which I'M taking! So let's get on with it." Blake glared indignantly at the tech for a moment. Make up your mind whether you'll shoot me or protect me! he tried to convey. Avon watched him, eyes hooded and gauging as Blake stepped into the teleport chamber. "Give me four minutes. After that start making educated guesses as to how to get me back again."
"Good luck," said Jenna.
Blake straightened his tunic nervously, "All right Avon, let's get started."
Avon began hitting the switches he had decided were most likely to work and the third one activated the teleport. Lights in the chamber glowed red, then Blake's body rippled like an image in water and faded out.
Blake appeared in a cocoon of soft-white light on Cygnus Alpha. As the light faded he stumbled on the uneven ground. He looked about in surprise and relief, then signalled the Liberator. "Jenna it appears to have worked. Start counting."
Jenna hit the timer. Avon turned his flat gaze on her. "Four minutes," she replied to Blake and glared back at the tech.
Blake looked around. He could see a lighted building in the distance and shaking his head at the barrenness around him, he headed towards it. Rounding the bottom of a hillock he saw a group of men in dirty black robes walking along the rise. He quickly ducked behind some bushes and watched them pass. Then he continued towards the building. They heard him break cover and turned around. The group was lead by Laran and he stared grimly after the tall man.
"A deserter. Kill him."
The men did not hesitate and started after Blake. Hearing them coming, he took off at a dead run.
He was cut off by two men who got around in front of him. Three more came up behind him and he turned and ran past the holding cell entrance to the base of a hill where they hemmed him in. He looked franticly around and then clambered up the hill, sliding in the loose gravel.
On the Liberator, Avon and Jenna were intent upon the circuitry of the teleport console. Avon replaced some small parts that were on the verge of burning out. Jenna twined her fingers impatiently. "Wish we could be sure that's the right one to bring him back."
Avon raised his head from his project and looked coolly at her. "We can't be sure, can we?" He folded the replacement parts' case.
Blake reached the hill top, using a vine to help him up. Laran had gotten there before him, though, and cut the vine, sending Blake tumbling back down the hill.
Jenna gazed at the timer. "Thirty seconds." Avon set his hands on the controls, ready to activate them.
Blake crouched at the bottom of the hill. Three men who were about to jump him looked up at Laran who nodded, smiling. As one they drew out three long daggers. Blake cringed back. You've done it this time, he told himself.
"Time's up!" Jenna said. Avon hit a button. Nothing happened. "Keep it pressed down!"
"I am keeping it pressed down," he replied sharply.
She shook her head, "Well it can't be the right one."
"Then WHICH one?"
"I don't know try that one. Here." She reached over his hands and hit a button. The teleport hummed and activated.
The three men leaped at Blake who raised his arms to ward them off. Then he was enveloped in a white glow and they gasped in shock as he faded away.
In the teleport chamber, the air shuddered and rippled as Blake appeared. Jenna cried out, "Oh - oh it worked! We got you back!" She was so relieved she ran to hug him.
Avon settled in his chair and gazed steadily at them. "It worked," he said quietly.
Jenna and Blake laughed. "We were so worried!" she told him, then drew away with a victorious grin.
"I had a few sweaty moments myself."
Taking stock of his rather pale face she asked, "Well what was it like?"
Laughing with the relief of being alive he replied, "Well nothing a'tall, really. It's a bit like your property when Vila's around, suddenly you're somewhere else."
Avon came up behind him, his face expressionless. "This would be worth a fortune to the Federation." Blake ignored that, moving to the bracelet nook.
Jenna followed him. "Well it actually got you down there onto the surface of Cygnus?"
He chuckled, wiping dirt off of his sleeves. "Well what do you think this is, moondust?"
Avon firmly called Blake back on track. "Did you see anything while you were down there?
"Not much," he said, cautious of his words to Avon. The tech sometimes scared him, like when Avon held the gun on Blake. He did not feel like giving the man a reason to stop him from rescuing the others and getting himself a crew. "And now we know how the system works, I'll go back down and find our people; bring back anybody who wants to come. From the little I did see they won't take much persuading."
The prisoners trudged through the mist, Gan leading them. By mutual consent they tended to jump behind him at any suspicious sight or sound. They almost walked into him when he stopped. "Wait! There's a building." It sat like an extension of the land, ugly and forbidding with a tower stretching into the sky.
Vila shivered. "Cozy."
"What do you think it is?" Gan asked.
"Huh. The architectural style is early maniac!"
Arco glared at Vila. "We need food and shelter!" He started off purposefully toward the building.
"But do we need them THAT badly?!" Vila yelled after him.
"Listen we... " Arco started to respond, turning around. He fell silent and pointed behind them. They turned around to find a black clad man and woman watching them.
Gan stepped forward warily, placing his body between the bulk of his fellow prisoners and these strangers. "Who are you?"
Kara faced him arrogantly. "I am the servant of your God. Kneel!" Gan decided to play it safe and he knelt. The others followed suit.
Kara looked at him appraisingly. He was well-muscled and that was of immense value on Cygnus Alpha. Next to his companions and most of the men she knew he looked almost royal, with strong features and curled hair. She had always liked curls. She walked to him, bent down and kissed his lips gently. Well that felt good. She gave him a hand up and smiled, looking around at the nervous group. "Welcome, brothers. Come! Follow us!" She clasped her hands under her chin. "God has prepared a place for you."
She turned and walked toward the building. Gan followed. This talk of a god made him uneasy, it spoke of regression to savagery and, lovely though the woman was, he thought her eyes did not quite seem sane.
Arco paused beside a grinning Vila. "Well?" he asked.
"I like God's taste in servants!"
"Shut up!" snarled Arco and he stomped away, leaving Vila to gaze in confusion after him. ____ _____ _____ _____
In the teleport room on Liberator, Avon and Blake were studying a bracelet. The computer tech looked up, "I think we've got it worked out now. Transmit and receive are quite straightforward; all the other controls are directional." Blake gazed after him as Avon walked to the console. "A little more practice and we should be able to put you down with precision."
"Got everything?" Jenna asked the rebel.
"I'm all set."
Avon glanced up. "How long do you want this time?"
"Four hours should be enough." He fingered the bracelet's button and spoke into it. "Testing!" boomed his voice through the speakers. "Any change and I'll contact you on this," he promised them.
Jenna gazed at him. "And if something happens to you, if we don't hear or I mean we can't get you back?" she asked, leaning forward and crossing her arms on the table.
"You must decide for yourselves." He glanced at Avon. "But I wouldn't want you to leave TOO soon."
The other man grinned, his eyes dancing. "Oh come on Blake! Do you really think we'd leave you down there?"
Jenna looked hard at him. "No we wouldn't."
Blake's eyes were dancing too, he directed a mischievous look at Jenna. "No, I didn't think YOU would." He backed into the teleport chamber. "Right! Shall we get started?" Avon gazed at him with that flat, judging look again. Blake had the feeling he had insulted the other man.
Jenna had a wary eye on Avon. "All right. Ready?" she asked the tech. He activated the teleport as she hit the timer. "Go!"
Blake materialized and staggered on a pile of gravel. He looked cautiously behind him. After being chased the last time he had brought one of the ship's weird guns with him. Not too far away from him he could see a strange building. He made a beeline for it over the uneven terrain. When he reached the door he checked his surroundings again. On the left side of the door was a sign carved into a block of stone. It had a large picture of a hand with these words written over it: `Only from this hand comes life' with an X over a circle at the bottom. The door was unlocked, so he entered.
Men's voices were raised in song, a slow sort of chant he had never heard the like of. The chamber he entered was sparsely decorated with dusty red curtains and at the end of the room stood a table covered by red cloth upon which rested a rusted piece of metal. On the wall overlooking the table was some sort of monument. Possibly beaten out of iron, it was the bust of a mustached man wearing a helmet. Blake picked up the rusted metal. It reminded him of some sort of ancient projectile weapon. Curious, he began to study it but then he heard someone coming into the chamber. He set the weapon down again and hid.
Kara walked into the room. She had changed clothes and was dressed in a thick red gown. She came to pray and knelt reverently before the monument. The curtains beside the table stirred and a tall man stepped out. He was heavily built with a thick beard and overwhelming bearing. He had a wide chest and a healthy though somewhat pale skin tone. His voice rolled out of him, "His blessings are upon you! Speak, and He will hear you!" he boomed, crossing his arms on his chest.
"I am thy true servant," she replied and bowed to kiss his feet. He raised her gently, for she both a true believer and a pleasure to look at on this cold world.
"The souls from the Outer Darkness are amongst us?" he asked.
"They are. In the place of the novices."
"A true bounty. Have they been touched by The Death?"
She looked saddened, "The curse of Cygnus is upon them all."
"Then let them know His mercy! You will teach them the First Law." He turned dramatically to the monument. "Only from His hand comes life...."
"Only from His hand comes life," she repeated worshipfully.
"And from His wrath comes death!"
"And from His wrath comes death."
He reached into a cupboard and scooped a pile of rather large white pills into his hands. "We obey Him and give thanks for His mercy!" he continued, closing and locking the cupboard.
"We obey Him and give thanks for His mercy!" Kara lifted a plate of beaten metal into which the man poured the pills, then they turned to the bust.
"He is the Giver of Salvation!"
"His power drives out the ravening beast that is death!"
"It is HE who must be obeyed."
"We thank Him." They bowed low to the bust. Kara took the pills and left. The huge man vanished behind a curtain. Blake slipped out from behind a pillar and went to try and open the cupboard, but he could not.
Avon walked casually back into the teleport room. Jenna glanced up and asked him, "Is there a maximum range on this?"
"Of course. I don't know what it is though."
She tilted her head. "What would happen if you teleported somebody beyond the maximum range?"
Faint amusement lit his eyes. "I would imagine that they would appear momentarily in space, and then that their atoms would be scattered to the solar winds." He smiled as if the idea pleased him. "Why don't you go and do a little exploring... I'll keep an eye on things here."
Jenna gazed at him appraisingly, then stood. "You wouldn't be trying to get rid of me, would you?"
They stood nose to nose and he gazed insolently into her eyes. "I have to get rid of Blake first. You're next on my list."
She almost grinned. "That would have been very disarming if I didn't know that you meant it." A smile lit Avon's face like a brief flash of lightning. Jenna raised her brows and started toward the corridor, then paused. "Avon..?"
He had already sat down. "Yes?" he asked, resting his chin on his hand.
Jenna turned very seriously to him. "Could you... kill someone? Face to face, I mean?"
"I don't know. Could you?"
She gave him a VERY steady look. "There's one sure way of finding out." Having delivered that warning she left the room, feeling his eyes follow her out but not seeing how his brows shot up to his hairline.
Blake wandered through the building, quite lost. Hearing a sound, a sort of scraping of metal on stone, he went to see what it was. There was a door with a closed peephole in it. He slid back the cover and peered in. A vaguely familiar man sat at a table sharpening knives. This was Laran, though Blake did not know his name. At the sound of the peephole cover sliding back he turned and noticed that it was open. Blake shied back and searched for a quick hiding place.
The prisoners were together in a dark cell, groaning and moaning, all of them holding their stomachs. Gan looked up to see Kara at the barred door, watching him and looking concerned. He cast her a bewildered look but she turned and left without saying a thing. She walked down the hallway to the small chamber where Laran sat sharpening his knives. "The sickness will end soon. When it does, He will come for them."
Laran smiled greedily. "With other souls to do his work, there will be a chance for ME, the... for the faithful to rise to the priesthood."
Kara rarely let her contempt for him show but scorn trailed into her voice. "He will not fail you. You will be rewarded." The man was only in the priesthood for his own comfort. Well, let him imagine God would treat him kindly. She turned away to the door with him on her heels. "Have faith, Laran," she said and walked gracefully out.
Laran grumbled to himself as he sat down at the table and began again sharpening his blades. Blake watched as Kara vanished through a curtained doorway, then he snuck to the dungeon door and quietly opened it. He tiptoed past Laran and put out the torch as a distraction. Laran cursed and went to light the torch while Blake crept down the hallway to the cells. He saw Vila through the bars.
His hiss, "Vila! Vila!!" went unheard, as the thief staggered sickly across the cell to throw up in a basin. Gan looked up tiredly upon hearing Blake's voice. The rebel saw him and called, "Gan!"
"Blake?" the big man exclaimed in a whisper. He came to the cell door to stare in astonishment.
The nauseating scent wafting from the cell frightened the rebel and he whispered, "What is it? What's the matter with everybody?!"
"How did YOU get here?" Gan returned question for question.
"Never mind that now! What's wrong?!"
"Disease. Something in the atmosphere. All new arrivals get it."
Dismayed, Blake drew back. "Well can it be cured?"
"The... priests have given us a drug. Uh, they say we'll be over it soon."
"Why are they keeping you prisoners?" Blake indicated the bars.
Gan hesitated just a moment. "We're not prisoners, we're just... confined 'til we're well again!"
Blake was shaking. "Listen...."
Gan interrupted him. The sickness and long months in fear of his life aboard the London had taken their toll. He had a fear that Blake would try to turn the priesthood upside down and wind up getting them all killed. That would be just like him. "The priests have been very good to us, Blake! They've... given us food and drink, treated us well...."
Blake whispered urgently, "Listen, I've got a ship I can take you and the others off this planet!"
"We can't leave here!"
The rebel drew back, confused. "What are you talking about?!"
"The sickness! We're all infected."
In total bewilderment Blake started to say, "You said you'd had the drug...."
"Ah you don't understand, Blake. To survive we have to be treated with the drug every day for the rest of our lives. We leave here, we die."
"Everybody?" he whispered, dismayed.
"Everybody. The priests call it "The Curse of Cygnus", and no one is immune..." he trailed off, gazing meaningfully at Blake.
This did not feel right. Something was drastically out of sync on this world. Blake asked suspiciously, "Well then why haven't I got it?"
"Oh you will have. We all came down with it about... two hours after we arrived."
Blake shook his head, "I've been here for nearly that long!"
"Then it's already in your system. Blake... you can't go back to your ship!" Gan held the rebel's gaze with his own.
"I'll talk with the leaders. I'll get them to give us a supply of the drugs or at least tell us how it's made!" In response to Gan's doubtful expression he said, "And in return I can, I can offer some of them a chance to get off here!!"
The thought of getting away from this dismal place was a strong appeal. Gan nodded. "They might agree... it's worth a try."
"I'll have to persuade them. Now, you rest now." Blake waved his friend back from the bars. Gan, exhausted, let his head droop. "I'll be back." The big man nodded and left the door to join the other groaning men. Anguished, Blake backed away and started down the corridor. He never heard Laran step out of an alcove behind him and clobber him across the back of his head. Blake collapsed.
Avon had taken apart some circuitry from the teleport console and was studying it when Jenna dashed in calling, "Avon!" She was wearing a long sleeved pale pink blouse with petals around the collar of other pale colors and maroon slacks and new shoes. She spun around, showing off. "What do you think?" she asked, grinning.
He was surprised especially by the faint perfume he could smell and distracted for a moment by how lovely Jenna looked in that color instead of the plain brown she had been wearing so long. He barely kept a smile off his face. "I'm glad to see you haven't been wasting your time on frivolities."
She noticed the circuits he had been playing with. Immediately suspicious she asked threateningly, "What've you done?"
He put on an innocent expression. "Just looking."
"If we can't get Blake back -" Jenna began to threaten.
"Where did you get the clothes?"
She gazed narrowly at him before answering the question. "I found a room full of them down there," indicating the corridor behind her. "Why don't you go and have a look?"
He leaned back and brushed his chin with the back of his hand. "Perhaps I will. Just out of curiosity." Gathering himself to his feet he pointed mockingly at one of the controls. "You can take over here, can't you. That is the recall button."
"Avon," she suddenly said, an odd note in her voice.
He turned, puzzled. "Yes?"
Her face was expressionless. "There's another room you should see while you're down there. At the far end. You might find it interesting."
He gazed thoughtfully at her then turned on his heel. He would look at that room FIRST, he determined.
Cygnus Alpha's religious leader Vargas stared up at the sky through a window in his temple. Far above was a glowing star with a metallic glint. He turned from the window to the tall curly-haired man who was just regaining consciousness to find himself shackled to a chair.
Vargas spoke in his booming voice. "You are recovered?"
It was the voice of the man who he had seen earlier giving pills to that woman. Blake resolved to be careful what he said. "Just about...." He winced as a stab of pain shot across the back of his head, then stared about at the cloaked men surrounding him. Vargas nodded to them and they disappeared through dark doors. He turned and picked something off the table behind him. It was the gun Blake had brought with him.
"An interesting design, a hand weapon of some kind. You will instruct me in its use!"
Blake tried to stay calm but he felt distinctly out of his league. "I'm not too certain about it myself."
"Hmm. Your possessions are forfeit," Vargas indicated the pile of teleport bracelets Blake had brought down. "I found these! Ha, fascinating!" He lifted a bracelet. "Some sort of body adornment I thought at first, and then I wondered why a man would carry so many! Perhaps to use in trade, in barter!" He kept glancing at Blake, taking note of how the other man reacted. "And then I thought again. And that didn't seem to be the answer either."
Blake watched him nervously. "They have no value in themselves."
"Ah!" Vargas crushed the bracelet and threw it on the floor. He took note of how his prisoner's face had gone white. "How did you get here?" he asked, picking up another bracelet.
Blake licked his lips. "I was a prisoner on the Federation ship."
Vargas crushed the bracelet and threw it down as he had done the other. "That is untrue. The prisoners were observed from the moment they landed, all are accounted for! So! When a new star was in our heavens..." he picked up another bracelet, "then I understood. It is a space-craft, isn't it?"
Blake was beginning to panic. "Don't destroy any more of th-"
"ANSWER ME!!" Vargas had long experience in intimidating people with his voice.
Blake closed his eyes, shuddering. "It is a space-craft! I WAS a prisoner on the Federation ship! With two others I escaped and we took control of the ship."
Vargas took Blake's measure again and nodded. "It seems unlikely. But it has the ring of truth." The rebel watched, afraid, as Vargas slipped the bracelet onto his wrist and chuckled. The man's tone became less menacing. "I am the supreme power here," he said, sitting on the edge of the table. "My word is law. My followers obey without questions." He lifted the blaster to his shoulder and aimed it at Blake. "They worship me...."
"Or fear you," Blake bit out.
"The two are inseparable!"
"I?" Vargas looked both bemused and amused as he lowered the gun. "I'm directly descended by the true and chosen line, mine is the power... by right."
Blake had caught back his self-control. "But this planet was uninhabited until the Federation brought the first batch of fifty criminals here. Is that the 'noble line' from which you stem?" he asked contemptuously.
Vargas' voice was cold with fury. "My ancestors came here on that first shipment... they had NOTHING!! The Federation gave them no tools, no supplies! So they worked together! They worked hard!!" he shouted. He stood and began to pace, history he had learned as a child that never failed to enrage him. "And MADE a community! There were children born here! They were settlers trying to build a NEW world on a new planet!" He pointed at the bust on the wall. "Later, more Federation prisoners came. There were disagreements; the community began to break up! They fought and killed, all they had ACHIEVED was being destroyed! AND it was my great-great-grandfather who found a way to unite them." He lifted the rusted pistol off of the table. "He gave them a religion! Brought them together in the love and fear of God!!" he turned to Blake and indicated himself, "THAT - is the line I stem from! That is what gives me the right to rule!!!"
Blake bowed his head and raised his chained hands in a placating gesture. To Vargas' ear the rebel's voice shook with fear. "F-forgive me for my ignorance, I - uh - I was WRONG to question your authority I apologize."
Vargas glared at him and hissed madly, "You are wise! Unbelievers perish in his wrath!" He set the gun back down.
Blake swallowed through a dry throat and held onto his courage with both hands. He would have to bargain carefully. "Now I came here only to find my friends. Eh - they - have a disease. I understand you have a drug which will combat it."
"They will require it each day for the rest of their lives." Vargas eyed his prisoner, wondering at the man's audacity.
Nothing for it but to go all out, thought Blake. "Well I ASK that they be allowed to choose whether they come with me. I ask that you give me a supply of that drug...."
The rebel shied in his chains from Vargas' bellow but he rallied. "I need those men. I must have a crew!"
"NO!!" Vargas bellowed again. He glared at Blake. "This society needs people, new blood, muscle and sinew to work the land... human souls are the only currency, our God is bankrupt without them!"
"Well will you trade them then?! There must be something on my ship that you need?"
Vargas sneered. "Toys like this, and these?" he indicated the gun and bracelets. "Is that what you offer me?!"
"Well what do you want?" Blake demanded angrily.
Briefly startled the rebel shook his head. "That, you already have."
"Here! Yes, but to take the Word beyond..!" he leaned forward, one hand stretched out. "To gather followers in NEW worlds, new disciples, bound together and obeying the one true God!!" He leaned closer, his smile and tone sly. "That is what I want... that is what YOU will give me."
Blake leaned back from him. "How?!"
"Your ship! You will give me your ship."
"No," the rebel said flatly.
His prisoner had a strong will but Vargas had defeated strong-willed men before. He leaned close. "I command it." Blake just glared at him. "You will contact your ship and order it to land."
Blake's voice had a hollow, laughter-haunted ring, "I can't do that!" He shook his head again.
"You are mistaken." Vargas stood and snapped his fingers. His men came out of the shadowed doors. Vargas spoke, "He has defied the Word! Teach him what happens... to Unbelievers...." They unchained Blake and hauled him around. "Teach him!!" There in a corner alcove was a rack with chains, next to it a container of hot coals. Between them stood a man holding a chain and swinging a iron collar at the end of it coolly. Blake heard Vargas chuckle and was aware of the man leaving. Soon he was aware of nothing but pain and his own screams.
Kara gazed out the tower window up at the star which was the Liberator. She turned to Vargas who was reading a book. She bowed anxiously to him. "Is it a sign?"
He looked up immediately. "It tells us that the time has come to take our truth out into the universe. New worlds shall honor the power of the Word!" Kara clasped her hands together in joy.
"Lord Vargas?" came a voice behind them.
"The Unbeliever will not submit."
Vargas sighed and nodded, then gestured Laran away. He turned to Kara. "Go to the place of novices. Speak to those who have newly come to us. Tell them... what happens to those... who disobey." She bowed her head and left. Vargas stared up at the ceiling, rubbing his beard and thinking about what he would do with a spaceship.
Avon dashed into the teleport room carrying a bag. Jenna looked up. She had never seen him look excited before, it was a novelty. "You found it then."
He poured out onto a table jewels that twinkled brightly. His voice fairly shook with greed. "Do you know how much is in there?" She came to his side, they dipped their fingers into the pile of jewels. "Millions! Millions!! And this is just a sample. There must be almost as much wealth in that single room as there is in the entire Federation baking system. Look at it!"
Jenna stared at him, then at the jewels, her eyes bright with longing. "You could buy a lot of freedom with this."
"You could buy anything with this, anything a'tall." He lifted a diamond bracelet. "Think of it, Jenna. There isn't anything you couldn't have."
She looked at him, frowning slightly. "What about Blake?"
His eyes went totally flat, emotionless. "What about him?"
"No," she said firmly.
He turned an intense gaze upon her. "We could own our own planet."
"We're NOT leaving him there."
"We have to. He's a crusader. He'll look upon all this as just one more weapon to use against the Federation, and he CAN'T win." For a moment there was an odd note of pain in his voice. "You KNOW he CAN'T win. What do you wanna be, rich, or dead?" She heard him, understood what he was saying, but she balked. "We might never have this opportunity again," he pleaded, holding up a jewel.
Abruptly she decided, "An hour. We'll wait an hour. If he's not back by then we'll leave." That is the only choice I can live with, she wanted to tell him.
He looked completely perplexed. "Why? Why wait?"
"Because THAT way I can convince myself that we gave him a fair chance. If he's not back by then..." she turned away.
He held the gems, gazing at them, then at nothing. It's the only choice I could live with too, Jenna. But I'm not telling you that. Suddenly he closed his fist around them and whispered, "All right."
The prisoners dodged aside as Blake was thrown into their cell. They pulled away from him. Arco tugged on Vila's sleeve to draw him further back. Blake groaned and turned over, he was all bruised and bleeding. Weakly he asked, "Give us a hand, will you?" Vila, Arco and Selman stood frozen against the wall. Gan's arms looped under Blake's shoulders and pulled him up, holding him until he was steady. "Thank you." Gan nodded. Blake looked in bewilderment at the others. "What's the matter with you?! Selman, Arco, Vila!"
Arco stepped forward decisively. "You gotta give them what they want, Blake."
Blake's head whipped up, his eyes were wild. With sarcastic fury he said, "Oh really?! That madman wants the ship! Give him that and we're finished!!"
Arco responded coldly, "We're finished already."
Vila franticly stepped forward. "They're not gonna give us the drug unless you do as they order. Without it we die!"
Selman whispered, "Tell him the rest!"
"If you delay, one of us will be chosen for sacrifice."
Arco aggressively moved forward. "We're not gonna let THAT happen, Blake! If they can't convince you then I will!!" He grabbed a chunk of wood off the floor and lunged at Blake, who simply ducked under the swinging arm and threw Arco behind him. Vila and Selman dodged around the rebel, terrified.
Blake turned on all of them, raging. "Ah, you! You're pathetic! I should leave you here to ROT!! You wanna live like slaves, you want to die at the whim of a madman then fine! But you're not taking me down with you, I'm getting OUT!! I'm better off without you!"
Vila cringed back with Arco and Selman, still he managed to say, "Even if we got away we wouldn't have the drug!"
"I know where it's kept!"
Arco snarled, "How long will it last?!"
"That ship up there is the most advanced design I've ever seen!" His eyes blazed at them. "There are medicines on board. There's a laboratory, we can... we can - we can analyze the drug, make it ourselves!"
Arco sneered, "That's what you say."
Blake's voice was shaking with fury, his immovable object routine was in full force. "Very soon now, they're gonna come and take one of you away, and there is nothing you can do to stop that happening, because there is NO way I am a-gonna order that ship to land!! And the choice is very simple. You can either fight, or you can die." He glared around at all of them and they stared back, terrified. "Well?" he demanded.
Gan stepped forward. He had watched Blake calmly through all this and for him the decision was an easy one. "Well I'm with you," and he stood by Blake's side.
Blake sighed in exhausted relief. He turned to the others. "Anyone else?"
Vargas stood worshipfully below the monument. An acolyte knelt on the steps next to him. Vargas spoke in his deepest, most carrying voice, "Only from His hand comes life! And from His wrath comes death! We obey Him, and give Him thanks for His mercy!" A gong sounded, echoing throughout the room. Vargas turned to the acolyte. "It is time! Bring the chosen one to the place of sacrifice!" The other man bowed and left. Vargas walked to the table and picked up Blake's blaster. He chuckled in amusement at the strange design, then found a switch on the handle. He pressed it and the gun blew a hole in the wall ahead of him. Vargas stared in wonder, the sound of the blaster still echoing in his ears. Then the wonder became a savage joy.
Blake peered out the cell bars. "They're coming." He turned to Gan, Arco, Vila and Selman. "Ready?" They nodded. He glanced back at the other prisoners huddled against the far wall. "It's your last chance!" Those up to responding bowed their heads. "All right?" he asked Gan.
"Let's get down." They joined the others against the wall. Vila watched the door tensely.
Avon paced back and forth, occasionally stepping into the teleport chamber. Jenna watched him from the console. He turned to her impatiently, "Oh come on, there's no point in waiting any longer."
Jenna came forward to try and stare him down. "There's still six minutes." They glared at each other.
"We've made our decision, let's just get out of here!"
"Six minutes! We'll wait...." She placed herself firmly between him and the teleport console.
Worshipful voices were raised in song and in the room with the monument Vargas, Kara and Laran were on their knees below it, staring worshipfully up. Other worshippers entered and knelt near the exit to the room. Four more acolytes came in leading Gan, his arms tied behind his back. One of them spoke, and as he did, Kara turned and saw Gan. Her eyes widened with refusal and hurt; she opened her mouth as if to say something, something like, but I want him! but then shut it and turned away. "The novices made attack on us; we were able to overcome them."
Vargas replied, "They will be punished! Come, prepare the sacrifice!" They started forward and made Gan lie down on the table. Laran picked up a machete and gave it to Vargas, who started the ceremony in his booming voice, "Oh Lord of our people, the offering of this sacrifice, we crave your blessing!!" He raised the knife in a salute then turned holding it over Gan. "Oh Lord of our people, we dedicate this sacrifice -" he passed the knife over Gan's body twice, then lifted it for the thrust. "- to you."
"NOW!!" shouted Blake. He and the others threw off the robes they were wearing and attacked the worshippers. Gan shook the ropes loose from his wrists and shoved Vargas away from him, then he snatched up a teleport bracelet from the nearby table and put it on. Blake ran for the table, punching out a man who grabbed for him. He snatched a bracelet and bellowed into its microphone, "Get us up, Jenna, quick!"
In the teleport room his voice came tinnily over the speaker, "Make it fast!!"
Avon didn't move. Seeing that, Jenna reached quickly for the retrieval button and he grabbed her hand, pinning it firmly away from the control. They glared at each other. "We lose it all," he said. She tried to reach the control again.
Gan had lost his bracelet but managed to get another on before being jumped by two acolytes. Arco tried for a bracelet but was grabbed by another acolyte and they rolled away, fighting. Vila popped up from under the table in a brief lull and put a bracelet on, then crawled away to dubious safety. A worshipper swung his torch at a crazily dodging Blake, who punched him out. Blake turned and saw "Vila! Where's Selman?!"
Blake was jumped by another man, who he wrenched away and threw down near Vila. The acolyte grabbed the helpless thief and pinned him against a door and began trying to choke him with his spear's handle. Blake pulled the man away and broke his neck with the very same spear, then used the spear to block an attack by still another acolyte.
Kara watched the fight from the side-lines, anguished. Why why WHY did they fight? Surely they knew they would die! Gan! Blake knocked his opponent out against the wall. Arco was stabbed by a spear, but he broke free and killed the man who had done it. Gan pulled free of the men holding him and Kara shouted a warning to him. "GAN!" He looked up and ducked a spear coming at him. It hit Kara instead and she went down gasping. Gan was jumped on by more worshippers. Arco, dying, dragged himself along the floor. An acolyte had Blake pinned and was trying to slice his throat with a stone knife, then he grunted and collapsed. Vila had stabbed the man and was staring in horror at the knife in his hand.
Blake dashed by and bellowed at him, "Well don't just stand there Vila, run!" Vila dropped the knife and took off after him. Blake grabbed Gan in passing. "Gan, come on!" They ran past Arco's body through a door and slammed it behind them. The remaining worshippers howled in fury as they hit the door. On the other side Blake asked, "Gan, can you hold them?"
"Long as the door doesn't break!" he answered, holding it shut.
Blake frowned at his teleport bracelet. Vila's anguished words, "Did you see they killed Arco?!" were ignored.
Frightened, Blake said, "I don't understand, there's no response from the ship!"
"Perhaps these bracelets don't work any more."
"Well we can't hold out much longer, that's certain." They could hear the acolytes pounding on the door.
"And they'll be getting reinforcements!" cried Vila.
Determined, Blake said, "There's only one way for it! You and Gan run out there, hide among the rocks, anywhere! At least in the dark you've got a chance! I'm going back in to get the gun!!"
"They'll kill you!"
"Gan, when I give the word, let go of the door!" He moved around to where the door would open. Gan readied himself to open it.
Vila said in a panic, "Blake, we'll ALL be killed!"
"Gan, do as I tell you! NOW!!" and Gan opened the door. Two acolytes tumbled out and Blake dived in.
Gan slammed the door and grabbed Vila's arm, running already. "Come on!!"
The gun was not on the table, but behind it. Three worshippers ran into the room and grabbed at Blake. In the struggle he hit a switch and fired into the air. The shot split the monument and acolytes screamed and crouched before it. Blake took his chance and bolted for the nearest door. Two worshippers stood before him and crossed their spears to block him, he dived between them into the next room. In the struggle he'd lost the gun and his bracelet fell off as he landed. "NO!" he heard Vargas bellow. He sat up groggily and heard the door slam behind him. There was Vargas with the gun, a maniacal gleam in his eyes. Blake shoved a nearby table onto its side between them as Vargas fired and he tried to run. But there was no where to run. Vargas had him cornered against the stairway. Blake flattened his body against the wall and stared in terror at the other man, who chuckled cruelly.
Jenna succeeded in getting Avon away from the console. As he glared at her she said, "We've got NO choice!" She activated the retrieval switch. Avon whirled to glare at the chamber.
A white glow surrounded Vargas and he faded away. Blake dived for his bracelet and bellowed, "Get me up! Make it fast!!"
Avon turned to Jenna, startled. She activated the controls again and said to him, "Get the ship moving!" He dashed to the flight deck. "Blake!" In the teleport chamber were Blake, a totally astonished Gan and Vila, and Vargas who ran across the chamber and held the blaster on all of them.
"Get out of there! All of you!!" They obeyed and he gestured them to stand by the console. He faced them from in front of the teleport chamber. "You'll get this ship down to the surface!"
Jenna replied, "We're already moving away."
"Then get it back!"
Blake said coldly, "If you kill us there is no way you can run this ship! You're getting further and further away from your precious drug..!"
Vargas laughed. "There IS no drug! A simple compound. The disease is a mild poison that clears itself! But for centuries the followers have believed in the disease! Believed in the cure! Just as YOU have believed!"
Blake was enraged. "So YOU, and those before you, built your power on FEAR! And ruled them with it!"
"I ruled!! I ruled! A small prison planet... with never more than five hundred people!! But with this," he looked around with delight, "with this, I could rule a thousand planets! For that prize, do you think I would hesitate to kill you?" He grinned wildly and backed up a few steps. "Now take this ship back to Cygnus Alpha. NOW!! I was their priest! I shall return to them a God!!" Blake hit the teleport send- switch and on that last word Vargas wavered out, to appear in deep space and explode.
Later on the flight deck...
Gan was studying the pilot console. Avon walked around behind him, intent on something and Blake fiddled with a teleport bracelet under Jenna's watchful eye. Zen spoke, Information! Sensors register that Liberator has been scanned by detector beams. A fleet of ships is approaching, and has changed course towards this system. Blake looked up alertly. "Put 'em on the screen."
The holoscreen opened and three distant lights could be seen crossing the star-field. Jenna nodded, "There they are."
Blake's voice was ice cold. "Identify."
Available data classifies them as Federation pursuit ships.
Blake stood and started towards Avon who was concentrating on some circuitry. "Set a course to take us away from them. Maximum speed." He stood beside Avon, staring curiously over the other man's shoulder.
Course and speed, confirmed.
Avon straightened up and turned a neutral look on Blake. "With our speed we'll probably out-run them, this time. But they'll keep coming. Pushing us, tracking us, they'll never give up."
Blake met his eyes steadily. "Nor will we." He glanced at Avon's project. "When we can handle this ship properly, we'll stop running." He turned his immovable-object gaze on the dark-haired man. "Then we'll fight." Avon simply stared at him, then turned away.
Blake, a revolutionary.
Jenna, a smuggler.
Avon, a failed embezzler.
Vila, a compulsive thief.
Gan, a gentleman.
Vargas, an insane religious leader.
Leylan, Commander of the London.
Artix, a young technician/pilot.
Kara, a religious follower of Vargas.
Laran, an ambitious follower of Vargas.
Arco, a tough, bullying criminal.
Selman, an elderly criminal.
Zen, the Liberator's master computer.